Into The Industry: Eco Artist

Rebecca Daniel

This week we caught up with eco-artist Stephanie Lerner, who's turning beach litter in works of art to open people's eyes to the issue of plastic pollution. Keep reading to discover her creative process and what inspires her fantastic pieces.

Hey Stephanie! Tell us a bit about yourself

Photo: Stephanie Lerner

Photo: Stephanie Lerner

Hello! My name is Stephanie K Lerner and I am an eco-artist. I transform beach litter into works of art as a means of creating awareness about plastic pollution in our ocean. After a BA in Art-Semiotics, a long career in graphic design and digital communications, I decided last summer that I could not just sit by and watch the ocean be destroyed. I also really needed to do something useful and get back to making stuff with my hands! So I took the jump and started creating things – weavings, sculptures, prints – all made from plastic trash. My goal is to use my artwork to start conversations and open peoples’ eyes to the issue of plastic pollution and incite them to use less plastic and dispose of what they use properly.

You’ve built your life around the ocean. What drew you to it in the first place?

I grew up in West Africa – Congo, Togo, Benin, Senegal – and a bit in Rwanda. We travelled a lot. When I was a kid I collected seashells and traded with people all over the world. I spent all of my free time snorkelling, swimming and beachcombing. The ocean is where I feel happiest. Whenever I’m down, I just need to see the horizon and hear the waves and I feel better.

What kind of pieces do you create?

As I live in an apartment, I make small or medium size pieces. Flat and circular weavings, volume weavings on oyster mesh, assemblages with driftwood and fishing gear, and beach trash prints. I have also started exploring ways of using my “leftovers” – working with fishing rope leaves quite a bit of loose fibers…

Blue X, nylon fishrope weaving on plastic oyster mesh, (30 x 40 cm, 2018). Tan-Tan, nylon fishrope circular weaving, plastic debris & seashells, (26.5 x 26.5 cm, 2018). Green Sunburst, nylon fishrope circular weaving , (26.5 x 26.5 cm, 2017). Sine Saloum, fishrope coil weaving, plastic debris & seashells, (36x36 cm, 2018). Photos: Odile Lefur

Can you describe your creative process, from finding trash on the beach to the finished product.

I do beach clean-ups whenever I can get to the beach and keep the litter I think might be useful – mostly fishing ropes, nets and bits and pieces of plastic. I work in France and there are a lot of oyster farms in the North and West (Normandy, Brittany, Aquitaine). I started weaving when I found pieces of washed-up plastic oyster mesh and played around with some fishing rope. It sort of just happened. Now I recuperate whole oyster mesh bags from farmers who are throwing them away.

As an ex-graphic designer, I am interested in the power of visual concepts and I try to create pieces that convey meaning. I also make prints using plastic trash as stamps, composing visuals of sea life, inspired by a Japanese nature-printing technique called Gyotaku used by fishermen to commemorate their best catches, dating back to the mid-1800’s. My prints are figurative, allowing people who like seahorses, for instance, to connect to the visual. Once they understand how the visual is made it gets them thinking about plastic waste.

Hippocampus & Zeus Maculata - prints made with plastic debris, (24x30 cm, 2018). Photo: SK Lerner

What does a typical day look like for you?

I work at home. My days are pretty studious as I weave or print four or five hours at a time. Usually I have several pieces going at once. Weaving is very calming, almost meditative, and takes time. After years working in advertising I am discovering what taking one’s time is like! Printing is more physical, full of surprises and gives immediate results. I research vintage visuals of sea life and sketch out ideas.

I spend a lot of time on the web reading articles on the subject of plastic pollution, what’s happening where in terms of campaigns, legislation, innovation, studies. I have also started some collaborations with NGO’s and have some exciting projects coming up – one with a fashion designer, one with a Kenyan-based not-for-profit called Ocean Mamas. We are trying to get a workshop going on the Kenyan coast, making home decoration and fashion accessories from beach trash. The idea is to create jobs for local women – from cleaning up the beaches to making objects that can be sold locally and in Europe.

How do you hope your art will influence others?

I believe that when people become aware of the problem of plastic pollution, they tend to alter their habits. I have seen, over the last months, how just about everybody in my entourage has started making changes, however small. At my show earlier this month, I made a thing I called a “pledge net”. After explaining the issues, I invited visitors to make a pledge to stop using throw-away plastic, do a beach cleanup, replace plastic toothbrushes with bamboo ones… It was a way to engage the public and I was really thrilled with the results. I am an optimist. I believe we can make positive change. Until somebody proves the opposite, I will pursue steadfastly.

Plastic Wave, nylon fishrope weaving on plastic oyster mesh, (60 x 55 cm, 2018). Infinity, nylon fishrope weaving on plastic oyster mesh, (30 x 16 x 16 cm, 2017). Plastic Wave detail, nylon fishrope weaving on plastic oyster mesh, (60 x 55 cm, 2018). Photos: Odile Lefur

Who or what do you draw your creative influence from?

Inspiration comes usually when you are not expecting it. Sometimes from way way back: memories of African textiles and baskets. Sometimes from Instagram and Pinterest. And sometimes, actually often, it is the materials themselves that guide the process. My sister, who travels all over the world, now picks up fishing rope whenever she finds some and sends me boxes of it. She was in Barbados not too long ago and sent me beautiful blue and green ropes. When I opened the box, I knew instantly that I wanted to do a piece with a gradient of blues and greens…

Which ocean species is on your bucket list to see?

My favorites are whale sharks and manta rays. But I’d love to come nose to nose with a loggerhead turtle. I collect pictures of nudibranchs on Pinterest and hope some day to get to Asia to see some of the incredibly colourful ones there.

Whose work has influenced and inspired you?

First and foremost, Sylvia Earle. She is my hero. Angela Hazeltine Pozzi, Pam Longobardi, John Dahlsen, Steve McPherson and Bordalo are all inspiring artists at the forefront of creating awareness about the ocean’s plight through their art. Special mention to Sheila Hicks, fibre artist extraordinaire and El Anatsui, the Ghanaian sculptor who makes monumental pieces with bottle caps amongst other recycled objects.

And finally, what advice would you give to people who want to explore their creative talents?

Don’t be afraid of what people think. Creating is first a personal need. If you feel you need to express something creatively, then you probably do. Creating heals. Sharing what you create can help heal the planet. Just listen to your heart and go for it!

Into the Industry explores the lives and vocations of professionals, academics and those working in the marine biology world

If you’ve enjoyed this article from Stephanie, follow her here @lerner.stephanie and check out her website

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